The weather in Central Maharashtra, said Jim Nadel, Artistic Director and Founder of Stanford Jazz Workshop, was about the same as outside, in Palo Alto, California. This seemed a fitting setting for the Indian Jazz Journey on June 23rd, and attendees were welcomed with a cooling mango beverage and a hand-held fan.
Several fans were to be found in the human form as well. Deepa Nagpal of Los Altos said she had come to hear Mahesh Kale. (Hear the conversation below:)
I glanced at some of the handouts to find out more about the musicians. It was, as promised, “a special moment to witness the creation of incredible new music as jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and Indian classical music superstar Mahesh Kale collaborated in this special event with saxophonist George Brooks and tabla master Subhankar Banerjee.
Vocalist Mahesh Kale’s career accelerated exponentially in 2015 when he won the best playback singer award at the 63rd National Film Awards for his work in the epic musical Katyar Kaljat Ghusli. The film scored an unlikely honor for a regional art form far outside Bollywood’s mainstream Hindi-language fare, helping spark a revival. “Youngsters have taken a liking,” Kale says. “They have these songs on their play list next to Adele, and when youngsters connect to an art it gives a lifeline for 50 to 60 years.”
George Brooks has long served as a bridge between the American jazz scene and India’s greatest classical musicians, a role the Berkeley saxophonist has embraced in organizing a series of unprecedented East/West encounters for the Stanford Jazz Festival.
Kale and Brooks have been collaborating for several years, but making his first trip with this cross-cultural collaboration was storied jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, whose two-handed tapping technique radically expanded the instrument’s possibilities. He burst on the scene in 1985 with his debut for the Blue Note label, Magic Touch, which spent a year on top of the jazz charts.
Tabla maestro Subhankar Banerjee rounded out the ensemble, adding another virtuosic voice to the proceedings. Banerjee has toured with many of India’s greatest musicians, including Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and Shiv Kumar Sharma. He’s also collaborated with guitarist John McLaughlin, a founding father of the Indo-jazz movement as a co-founder of the 1970’s ensemble Shakti.”
On Sunday, Dinkelspiel Auditorium was full to capacity. The audience applauded the musicians in turn. Several jugal-bandi improvisations added to the playfulness of the concert, with Stanley Jordan climbing aloft a stool at one point to strike a pose with George Brooks. All hands were on deck for this riff on So What by Miles Davis.
But the audience was clearly the most enchanted when Mahesh Kale displayed the vocal range that is the legacy of his classical training. Hear Mahesh Kale’s beautiful voice as he sings Chadaria by Kabir at Stanford Jazz 2019:
As part of the workshop, and in keeping with the oral tradition of music, the audience was encouraged to repeat musical notes, but the result, Kale stated with radical candor, was “quite terrible.”
After meeting with the long queue of admirers and well-wishers, Mahesh Kale spoke to me about how diverse music forms might not be part of the repertoire, but somewhere reverberate with the inner self. Music is a great equalizer, he says, and while high tech brings wonderful things, music serves as a balancing force for Silicon Valley stress. (He is an engineer by training,)
George Brooks characterized the concert as a cross-pollination and wanted to distance himself from the notion of fusion music and said he considered this more of a conversation between artists and a way to develop relationships between artists.
The audience protested when the musicians announced that it was time to wind down. And as the concert ended, the third such collaboration, and the audience filed out, several members of the audience were humming the tunes they had heard.
Perhaps Mahesh Kale was on to something. Despite living in Silicon Valley, no one looked particularly stressed.
Cover image: Mahesh Kale, voice; Stanley Jordan, guitar; George Brooks, saxophone; Subhankar Banerjee, tabla.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents magazine. She feels fortunate to be able to attend ICMA (Indian Classical Music and Arts) and other classical music concerts close to home.